The Garden of Words (2013) Review: A Sprinkle of Drama for a Rainy Day
Yes, everyone who has already seen The Garden of Words probably just groaned at my choice of title. Those who didn’t, the amount of time you can spend reading this article you might as well try watch the film. The Garden of Words is the latest installment from director Makoto Shinkai’s of CoMix Wave Films, the ‘master of loneliness’ as I like to call him (please click on the link to see my teaser reviews of his other titles). The 45 minute film is about 15-year-old Takao Akizuki, whom likes to skip school on rainy days and go to a park, where he meets a mysterious older woman! It sounds like it could be a pitch for a romantic comedy title, but it is not. It explores the lonely life of this poor student, and reminds me why high school was such a terrible place. Fan or not, you may be wondering how this compares to others considering how similar the themes are. Is The Garden of Words just regurgitating the ‘same old thing’ we’ve seen previously? The short answer is no. Shinkai’s films often have an element of romance within them, and different romantic pairings have been explored: cats, two lovers separated by time and space, lovers distanced by the progression of time, long distance relationships (real-world sense) and now lovers kept apart by age and professional positions (cue the long ethical discussion). Essentially, it is exploring the same themes in a different way.
What sets this one apart from his other down-to-earth titles like She and Her Cat (1999) and 5 Centimeters per Second (2007) is the script and characters. Considering it is 45 minutes, it doesn’t feel like it drags on too long (like in The Place Promised in Our Early Days (2004) or is rushed. It keeps to the point and knows what it is trying to say. Every scene adds something to the atmosphere and the characters journey. In Place Promised, the male characters liked to build planes. Here, Takao likes to make shoes. He is trying to figure out who he is, deal with a broken family situation and pass school, instead of all his focus just being on the pursuit of a woman. It is a more well-rounded peek into his life. There isn’t much time to develop him beyond that, as the main focus, and the most interesting part of The Garden of Words is Yukino. The only other grown woman Shinkai has had in his short films is the one in She and Her Cat, so it’s a refreshing change, and nostalgic to contrast and compare the two age groups. You could almost see Yukino as a more expansive view of that character. She is mysterious, enigmatic, and it takes time for Akao to develop enough confidence to ask about her life. The climax of the story is when Akao has figured out his opinion on Yuki and her situation, and breaks down. The climax brings up an ethical question of mixing professional with personal life, as well as an age difference, and it is dealt with sensitively and appropriately. Even with Japan’s openness with… obscure relationships, I am glad The Garden of Words didn’t cross that line. It ends on a depressing note, like many of Shinkai’s works, but there is a ray of hope with the line at the end of the credits: “I am going to go visit her”. It reminds us that even though he stuffed up in school that life goes on and he is still keeping in mind what is important to him. He hasn’t, as far as we know, jumped in front of a train or ruined his life.
If we’re comparing his films based on aesthetics, they are all on the same high standard, and it would be wrong to choose which one to watch based on this alone. The animation is fluid and gorgeous as ever with the lighting effects, and the enormous amount of detail in the backgrounds. The focus on nature is similar to 5 Centimeters per Second, and feels more homely than the desolate buildings in sci-fi Place Promised. This appears to be done deliberately. The backgrounds are reconstructions of photos from the famous, popular tourist spot, Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden in Tokyo. They were originally designed for royalty but were damaged in 1945, near the end of the second world war. In an interview from Anime News Network, Makoto Shinkai stated that he is very proud of how beautiful Tokyo can be, and wanted to share its charm and beauty with the audience. The biggest change this time around is the character designs by Kenichi Tsuchiya, which look more mature and real-to-life than previous titles. Takao has a bony, block-face structure which is usually saved for side characters or “the dumb macho guy” in shounen titles (like Toji Suzuhara in Evangelion). Since this is the opposite of a shounen title, it makes the characters seem more realistic and believable, even though they are just drawings. The eyes are not overly big, but still pleasant to look at, which is a plus for those who hate that style of anime drawing.
Makoto Shinkai has always impressed me with the style of music he chooses for his films. In his feature-length titles, Children who Chase Lost Voices and The Place Promised in Our Early Days there has been a large ensemble orchestra to add a punch of power to scenes. Here, Shinkai reverts back to his humble beginnings of Voices of a Distant Star (2003), so it is mostly just a single piano. None the less, it is still enchanting and beautiful. If the style sounds a little different to you, it would be because it was composed by Daisuke Kashiwa, whom (yes, you heard me) isn’t Tenmon, the same composer from every other film Shinkai has ever done. While there are never opening songs with Shinkai’s work, there is a beautiful ending song: “Rain” by Motohiro Hata, an acoustic track with smooth vocals. Like the other ending songs, it is fantastic, catchy and has a beautiful melody. It definitely adds magic to the film. The Japanese acting is great. It shines at the climax of the film, the most emotional scene near the end. I had to try not to sob in the REEL anime cinema screening that I saw. The english dub could have been better, but it is not the acting that is amis. Since the majority is narration, the delivery is believable. Patrick Poole is, but more importantly sounds way too old to be playing a 15-year-old boy. He sounds like he‘s the older brother in the family. It is distracting, as it makes you forget there’s a 10 year age gap between the two leads. Maggie Flecknoe, as you may have guessed, sounds a lot more fitting age-wise in her role, and is almost identical to the Japanese.
For a director whom, like many, recycles similar ideas, he does it very well. The themes of loneliness and longing for others is explored in a very poetic, true to life manner. He takes something incredibly simple and makes it relatable and sympathetic – mostly through exposition of thought. As we all know, loneliness is something akin to being trapped in your own mind – which in turn, makes you feel heavy, sad, and disconnected to reality. In Shinkai’s films, we are often smack bam in the mind of the main characters. It is something many viewers will be able to identify with, and partially is what makes Shinkai’s films so popular. We can all unite in our experiences of loneliness. A mixture of relaxing, nostalgic, touching and heart wrenching, Garden of Words is a noteworthy addition to Shinkai’s growing collection of titles. If I could re-write my previous article, I would put this one at #4, above 5 Centimeters per Second, which would kick “Place Promised in Our Early Days” off the ranking space forever. Story wise, it doesn’t beat Voices of a Distant Star, but it is worth watching even if you have seen all his other films, as it isn’t a step down in quality by any means.
What do you think? Leave a comment.